In Defense of Online Teaching and Learning…

Originally published at Stillwater Historians, June 7, 2012. Links likely outdated.

Very very late last night, I was in my office working through some GIS training modules.  This set me to thinking about a number of the conversations that have animated the blogosphere of late—notable among them the debate over online education.  There are quite a number of vocal opponents of online education amongst historians.  At one point it had seemed counterintuitive to me that you might find some of them blogging!  It seemed to me to suggest that the internet had become a place where established scholars could engage in exchange and discussion and learn from one another, but somehow the medium was inappropriate for engaging our students in similar discourse?  But I fully recognize that there is more to it than that, and I would go so far as to concede that the detractors of online education have some perfectly legitimate concerns.  Jonathan Rees has been prolific in articulating them at his blog, More or Less Bunk, which, despite my propensity to disagree with him, has been in our Blogroll for some time.  Other critiques, some explicit, some less so, emerge in posts and comments at Tenured Radical and Historiann as well.

So the basic narrative goes that online education is coming to steal our children.  Well, more specifically I guess, it is coming to destroy liberal education as we know it and put us all out of work.  Oh, and those of us in the humanities will lead the way to the unemployment lines, as MA wielding adjuncts and their computer programmer friends settle into those endowed and now empty chairs.  The scenario neither frightens nor compels me, and I don’t think it’s just because I have, literally and figuratively, nothing to lose.

As we’ve positioned ourselves and our blog in earlier posts (see Portage Ahead, in particular) we are interested in the process, prospects, and problems of navigating the field as advanced grad students and early career academics do.  With that in mind, online education presents a significant quandary.  Do we stand with its detractors and attempt to improve future job prospects by resisting it?  Or do we, as some would describe it, take a hand in our own oppression by training ourselves to teach online—making ourselves in the process more versatile, and in more and more applicant pools, more attractive candidates?  Is it short-sighted to buy into this trend?  Or is it strategic and savvy to be mindful of emerging trends and position yourself to take full advantage?  I think it’s pretty clear where I come down.

Given some of the other conversations gaining steam and attention around the discipline, the academy, and the academic blogosphere though, this debate seems a bit out of step.  On the one hand the academy seems gung ho to embrace digital history and digital humanities and the increased use of digital tools to not only drive historical analysis but also broaden our options for the delivery of findings.  Is not teaching one of our outlets for the delivery of findings?  If we’re willing to consider blogs, online journals, portals, and digital archives as a means to reach a new and broader audience, why do we continue to place our students outside of that nebulous population we call an “audience”?  Maybe a bigger and better question is why do we cling so fervently to this sense of separation between our research objectives and our teaching responsibilities?  Our research inevitably informs our teaching and vice versa—so shouldn’t our openness to new technologies in one aspect of our professional lives be consistent with the other?

Additionally though, we have conversations going on about the actual effectiveness of our conventional approaches to teaching and learning.  The argument against online learning begins from the assumption that it saps the good from existing conventions—that the brick and mortar classroom and face-to-face interaction is the superior approach.  But these conventions are challenged, and rightly so, at every turn.  Rees himself, not all that long ago, featured a great piece on his blog about dumping the coverage model for the history survey.  Historiann, in a recent comment thread, toyed with the notion of dumping the survey altogether.  We seem to have reached a point where we can acknowledge that the conventions of higher education don’t serve all learners equally and don’t serve some learners particularly well.  At what point do we arrive at the same conclusion for online approaches?  Some learners thrive in online fora.  Some do not.  And just like in the classroom, there are educators who do a fantastic job of presenting material meaningfully and coherently to their audience, and others who, well, do not.  But I think it’s a bit disingenuous to attack a premise in one argument while clinging to it in another.

I’ve been reworking a chapter about early to mid-nineteenth century marine science that attempts to say something about the state of scientific consciousness in coastal communities of New England and the Maritimes during that period.  Among the developments I look at are the mechanics institutes and lyceum movements, which contributed mightily to the availability and popularity of public lectures.  Part of the impetus behind the development of professional associations and the creation of disciplines in the sciences and throughout the academy was a sense of the need to prevent “quackery” from being disseminated through such lectures.  The popularity of the form made it marketable, and attractive to anyone who might seek to turn a profit from limited research and more eloquence than actual knowledge.  While the disciplines and professional associations did not eliminate stupidity, and never will, they have proven to be remarkably adept gate keepers of merit and credibility through the advent of an awful lot of technology.  I see no evidence of their willingness to abandon that role in the face of digital communications, and I think the discussions we see week after week on Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed blogs support this.

As I mentioned above, I’ve been putting myself through training courses on the ESRI website to better understand GIS and lay the groundwork for moving my research into GIS tools so that I can better visualize, interpret, manipulate, and present my work spatially.  The course I’m currently taking is free.  When I complete it I will have a certification that I can put on my CV to tout a degree (albeit a modest one) of expertise.  The course itself features no instructor interaction.  My progress is assessed on the basis of multiple choice questions at the end of each section.  I can take as much or as little time as I want to complete the modules.  To historians I’m sure this sounds like the very embodiment of the “problem.”  But here’s the thing:  I’m learning.  I’m learning not only how to manipulate a computer program, but I’m learning the conceptual framework upon which that program is created.  I walked home from the office the other night thinking about how maps can manipulate features, attributes, and relationships to tell stories and present arguments, just as I do with material pulled from archives.  I’m not even ready to start using the tool yet, but already it is informing how I think about my own work.  Is this course design perfect?  Of course not.  But it is well designed for what it is.  It serves the purpose for which it was created.  It facilitates learning for people with a broad range of objectives for learning GIS.  Not everyone taking this course is looking to use the tool and the knowledge gained to inform historical research.  As you well know, not everyone in your history classes, online or face-to-face, want to be historians either.

I can’t think of any industry that allows its workers to just ignore new technology when it’s made available.  Workers continually retrain and retool themselves to operate in a modern, ever-dynamic workplace (though, granted, they spend their smoke breaks bitching and moaning about how management doesn’t “get it”).  If we want the workers of the future to continue to see college as the foundation for a successful career in a future workplace we cannot yet clearly define, isn’t resistance to this concept the last thing we want to be modeling?  Much as the emerging academic community of the late nineteenth century embraced the lecture and set the terms and benchmarks for quality and academic rigor, shouldn’t we now be leading the way into digital technologies—retooling ourselves to best understand and harness those capabilities so that we can keep quackery at bay and create new and better means for growing and disseminating knowledge?

Just like regular courses, online courses come in all shapes, sizes, and formats.  Let’s stop talking about them as though they are some kind of monolithic, one-size-fits-all solution proposed by administrators to keep our faculties small and their paychecks big.  The online courses I’ve taught have been rich in discussion, writing intensive, and the only multiple choice and robo-grading that was used was on the course evals.  And the caps for my online courses, by the way, have been the lowest caps I’ve ever encountered.

The conventional classroom is a flawed space.  We should continue working to understand those flaws and adapt improvements.  Teaching that is done in that space spans a wide spectrum in terms of quality—we should be forever seeking to improve it.  Virtual spaces and online teaching done in them is similarly imperfect.  Ignoring it will not make it meet its challenges and obligations any better.  It won’t make it go away either.  Embracing it with a critical eye and acknowledging its place in the landscape of teaching and learning will encourage colleagues to adapt new and better techniques and approaches.  Let’s stop pretending, for the purposes of debasing online learning, that conventional methods are perfect.  And let’s stop conflating our conversations about MOOCs, robo-grading, over-dependence on adjuncts, and frustrations with online curricula into one angst-ridden non-debate, and begin instead to open some more measured discussions about how to harness technology and manipulate spaces, messages, arguments, and knowledge to greater effect.  This has become part of our workplace and the smoke break is over.